Thanhha Lai’s lyric smash debut novel, Inside Out and Back Again, tells the story of a pivotal year in the life of 10-year-old Kim Hà. In her author’s note, she makes the bald admission that “Much of what happened to Hà…also happened to me.” In spare, movingly image-laden poems, Hà relates the life-altering events of 1975, when, having lost her military father in action nine years earlier, she, her mother and three brothers fled war-ravaged Vietnam.

Hà’s narrative details their harrowing boat trip from Saigon to Guam, then on to a Florida refugee camp before finally being sponsored by a family in remote Alabama. With pathos and a sharp sense of humor, Lai deftly explores the challenges and complexities of leaving one’s country and acclimating to a new, very foreign culture—all from a 10-year-old’s perspective.

Find more great poetry & verse among our 2011 Best Books for Children.

Was this story a difficult one for you to tell?

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No, because it’s been processed. I think with childhood stories any kind of memory has been processed if you let it sit there. And I’m 45 years old, so it’s 35 years since this happened to me—that’s why I was able to add all the humor to it, because it certainly wasn’t funny at 10.

I’ve been writing the same story for 20 years in various formats, and it just came out this way and finally worked. I’m not a poet; I’m a novelist. The only reason this is in prose poems is because it was the only thing I could come up with to be inside Hà’s head when she’s 10 and thinking in Vietnamese. Vietnamese is lyric and poetic, and it was a perfect fit. And Vietnamese is very spare. Like Chinese, it’s a picture language, the language is written in images. If Hà were thinking in English, there would be no reason for it to be in prose poems, and I wanted to convey that there was no way she would be able to think like this in English.

The poem “War and Peace” includes a gripping scene in which a well-meaning teacher shows Hà and her class the famous photo of the naked, burning girl. Did that experience happen to you?

Yeah! It happened to me around fourth grade. There was a very well-meaning teacher, and she wanted to expose the children to my world. But the only world she knew was the burning-child world, the helicopter-on-the-roof world, and so those were the pictures she brought to class. And she was the one who exposed me to the picture of the burning girl; before that, I’d never seen it. Her Vietnam was just so different from my Vietnam that I had to go home and ask my mom about it.

How did it make you feel?

It made me feel like people were pitying me, and there’s nothing I hate more than that. I get that from my mother. Remember, we have a missing-in-action father, so it was very natural that people would come over to the house and feel sorry for us, and my mother never allowed that to happen. Pity was just something she would not allow. No, she would rush them out of the house.

So, I remember the kids looking at me. First, they were shocked. And second, of course, they thought I was that child. And I very well could have been. But I didn’t like that look of pity, and I just remember feeling not so much embarrassed but angry. And you can’t say anything because the teacher is basically holding up a book, saying, “Isn’t it sad?” And I certainly didn’t have the skills at that point to say, “It was sad, but it was also really fun.” I think really that’s why I wrote this book, just to say there’s always some happiness in the middle of horror. And when you’re in the middle of horror, for some reason you find joy in it, because it’s your corner of the world and you know it really well.

When you lose your home, how do you feel safe and grounded again?

It’s such a long process, and it’s not a matter of physical replacement like in the novel, where you lose your home in Saigon and they give you a house in Alabama. This novel took place in a year only because I had to compress and make it into a literary narrative. I would say the process took me a good 10 years.

And how do you know this is your place in the world? When you hear the news and they start talking about “we this” and “we that.” I remember the first time I identified with the “we.” I was like, “Oh, they’re talking about me!” Because forever when they talked about “we,” it was always the others, the Americanswe don’t do that. And I can’t even pinpoint which news story it was that made me feel like a “we,” but it happened right around college, in Austin, so it was a good 10 years later.

I think it’s the ability to look out at other faces in the crowd although they do not physically look like you—because I grew up in Texas nobody looked like me; I was the only Asian in high school—and yet find some kind of emotional identity where you all feel the same. And then you’re like, “Oh, OK. I get it.”

Right now, I think to feel like an American would be someone who says, “I need to lose 10 pounds.” Every American is saying, “I need to lose 10 pounds.” Once you get to that point where you say, “Oh my gosh, I need to lose 10 pounds,” you’re part of the crowd. And I need to lose 10 pounds!